MATTHEW 22: 34 - 40"The law is an ass!"
Now don't get too excited. Although there are times when I agree with those words they are not mine, at least not in the first place. In fact they belong to that wonderful creation of Charles Dickens, the Mr Bumble imoortalised later by Harry Secombe in "Oliver Twist."
And indeed leaving aside any controversies over recent legislation, there remain on our statutes, ancient pieces of legislation that would cause even the mildest mannered of you to join with John McEnroe in a cry of, "You cannot be serious!"
John Owens, firm of solicitors based in Denbeighsire in Wales, list some of these beauties on their website. They include
- it being treasonous to place a postage stamp bearing the queen's head upside down
- it being illegal for ladies to eat chocolates on public transport
- it being an offence to eat mince pies on Christmas Day
- it being a serious crime to die in the Houses of Parliament even though some debates can rob one of the will to live
- and it being legal to shoot a Welsh person within the city walls of Chester as long as it's with a bow and arrow.
And of course there is my favourite law which is sadly missing from that website, namely that all males over the age of 14 years old are required to carry out 2 hours of longbow practice every week under the supervision of the local clergy.
Now you might wonder why the bounders of Westminster are not called back a few days early after one of their recesses to get rid of such laws. On that I could not possibly comment but you will be pleased to know that none of the legislation I have mentioned is enforced today which doubtless is good news for Welsh people who need to visit Chester from time to time. Why are they not enforced? Because we know that such laws could only undermine respect for the rule of law and indeed in many cases subsequent laws superced or even contradict those which I have named.
The people of Jesus also had amongst the Law that had been given them some which are questionable today if not in the time of Jesus. These include
- a prohibition of the wearing of clothes two kinds of material
- a requirement to wear tassels on the four corners of the cloak that one wears
- an instruction that women should not wear men's clothing and equally that men whould not wear womens' clothing ( so by bye trousers for women and farewell pantomime dames)
- a bar on eating the meat of pigs so take that all you who love a pork chop, ham or pork sausages
- and a No to products that contain blood which is certainly bad news to lovers of black pudding among whom I count myself.
And just as with archaic laws of the land we tend to adopt a policy of ignoring such Old Testament laws as these. They do not fit in with our society we say. Surely they are best left in the past.
And for what it is worth I think we have a good case here. But before we happily dispose of those scriptures which are not to our liking, I think that there is a question we need to face up to - what is the purpose of the Law that was given to Israel? What is its DNA, it essential purpose? And that is why a common question not just at the time of Jesus but even before that time was what was the essential message of the Law? Was there a law which had precedence over the rest, a law which could as it were sum the whole complicated collection of laws up?
So in our scripture reading a Pharisee, one of those who took the law particularly seriously, asked Jesus which of the 613 laws in the Torah was the most important. In reply Jesus doesn't do away with the Law but gives a two part reply. The first part looked back to Deuteronomy and speaks of love for God;"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
No surprise here at all! After all this was a part of the Shema which even today is prayed morning and night by observant Jews, often being the first prayer that Jewish children learn. Here is the response to God's goodness expressed in a love with all one's being. All one's efforts are turned to God in a love which longs to make uphold the value and wonder of God.
But there's a second part to Jesus' answer. This time looking back to Leviticus, Jesus recites;"Love your neighbour as yourself."
And just as the Old Testament has much to say about responsibility to foreigners, Jesus in Luke's gospel links this agape love that seeks the best for others, to those who are different from his own people in the parable of the Good Samaritan. For the Biblical understanding of love is not something that we can put up barriers around but it is that which is inclusive of even those whom we are culturally and religiously different from. For the Christian is called to will good to all and to be the enemy of none.
But to me the wonder of Jesus answer is how we links together three objects of love - God , the diversity of humankind and ourselves. All are to be loved says Jesus. And the roots of this are to be found in being called as people of the God who is the creator of love and whose love knows no limits. But that same God is the lover of all people even those whom we find it hardest to love and that same God is the one who loves us. Now says Jesus we are drawn into a circle of love in which we can but will good to God and all who are the products of God's creation.
And yes, that love does indeed change everything. Through that love we see the value in all beings. All is of worth because all is of worth to God. No person is disposable for each is the child of the God whose love is unceasing.
And ultimately the challenge to each of us who wishes to be followers of Jesus is how do we follow and reflect our Lord in a way that brings honour to our Lord and how do we reflect the divine love to all in a world that is ften gripped by fear towards all that is different from us. For make no mistake love is the supreme rule of our faith. It is our essential DNA. And where we come to conclusions that deny love and the God given value of others, our understanding of Bible and God are clearly wrong. For love is no option. It is the way - a love that is directed beyond us to God cannot fail to be directed at all creatures.